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Jacob Benjamin Gyllenhaal was born in Los Angeles, California, to producer/screenwriter Naomi Foner (née Achs) and director Stephen Gyllenhaal. His mother is from a Jewish family, and his father's ancestry includes Swedish, English and Swiss-German.
At the age of eleven, Gyllenhaal made his movie debut in the comedy-drama City Slickers (1991), playing Billy Crystal's character's son.
Gyllenhaal is the godfather of Matilda Ledger (aka Matilda Rose Ledger), daughter of the late actor Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams.
Gyllenhaal's most significant personal relationships have been with actresses Kirsten Dunst and Reese Witherspoon.
[on his failed audition for the role of Frodo Baggins] I remember auditioning for The Lord of the Rings and going in and not being told that I needed a British accent.
I really do remember Peter Jackson saying to me, "You know that you have to do this in a British accent?
As of 2014, has starred in three movies where he played not only a real person, but the person who wrote the book upon which the film was based: Homer H. Had his Bar Mitzvah party at a homeless shelter, something his parents encouraged to help him recognize how privileged his own childhood had been (a Bar Mitzvah is the coming-of-age service that Jewish boys celebrate at age 13). Messages tend to be a little preachy, and I don't think that's what movies are about.
It's important for me to be in movies that have a human level, have a heart in them.
The play was widely-received and played for eight weeks in London's West End.
[on receiving more attention for his abs in Prince of Persia than his character] It's fine, it's definitely flattering.
I think there's a definite focus on vanity, and I think we all focus on it, which is so unimportant to me.
But I know what a privilege it is to do the job that I do.
I know how amazing it is to be able to choose the work that I do.